PRINCETON, N.J. The average IQ of this university town is normally high, but it hits its annual peak on the weekend of the Gauss-Fleckner Conference on Experimental Physics when some of the brainiest men and women in the world converge on the campus of Princeton to read and listen to each other’s papers and to participate in discussions whose turbulence can literally change the world. “The brainstorms can get pretty fierce,” says Natalie Hartnett, an administrative aide at the institute that sponsors the confab. “We post small-mind warnings around the neighborhood to make sure no one is hurt by untested theorems flying around.”
“He called you a farthammer. How do we retaliate in a nuanced, thoughtful way?”
But the assembled scientists are known for something else besides their grey matter among local law enforcement officials. “We’ve had a few incidents over the past coupla years where we had to use pepper spray,” says Princeton University Campus Police Sergeant James Hampy. “I would not be takin’ a quantum leap if I said some of these guys can get kinda squirrelly when a discussion ’bout the law of thermodynamics gets heated.”
Niels Bohr and wife Margrethe riding motorcycle–without helmets!
Tensions began to simmer at a lecture on the speed at which the universe is expanding Friday night. “If the universe is expanding,” said Dr. Oswalt Gurney of Syracuse University during the question and answer session that followed, “what is it expanding into–except the universe!”
“No, no, you’ve got it all wrong,” replied Dr. Fung Chen or the University of California-Irvine. “It is like a balloon that is expanding in your hands while you inflate it.”
“I put some Spanish Fly into Little Miss I Don’t Believe in Anti-Neutrinos’ Diet Coke!”
With that, Stuart Versch, a graduate teaching assistant, stood up and said “Is your balloon filled with air, or water?”
Dr. Chen began to chuckle, then said “Your metaphor is inapt. It really doesn’t matter which image you use,” at which point Versch hurled a water balloon at the speaker as he yelled “If it doesn’t matter, have a taste of this!”
Order was restored and the academics retired to the faculty lounge for a “Bend an Elbow and the Space-Time Continuum!” happy hour where discussion shifted to “string theory,” an exotic but increasingly popular theorem that some believe will eventually harmonize all the laws of physics under a single “unified field” theory.
“I can’t believe you’re still locked into your outmoded three-dimensional thinking,” chided Prof. Jeffrey Chow after listening to Dr. Philip Castrop offer his reservations about the concept. “It’s people like you who give the rigorous and thoughtful kooks like me a bad name.”
“I’ll show you what I think of string theory,” Castrop said as pulled out a can of Silly String, the non-toxic spray streamer that “brings out the fun” for group events of all kinds.
“Why you . . .” Chow sputtered as he was covered with colored string by Castrop and a number of his colleagues, who then turned and ran towards the exit only to reappear at a plenary session the next morning as if nothing had happened.
If Silly String is outlawed, only outlaws will have Silly String.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Castrop said when Chow confronted him at the podium. “Maybe it was my doppelganger who did it. I was in a completely alternative universe at the time.”